Monday, February 02, 2009

Point of View: "Tis A Puzzlement"

For the writer of fiction, one of the most puzzling problems is "point of view." I recall seeing the critiques of my first novel laden with notes about point of view--"make this close third person," "you've slipped into omniscient," and similar phrases that might just as well have been Aramaic for all they conveyed to me. I tried my best, honestly. I slogged through Mastering Point Of View and came away with information overload. I asked several writers to explain. I studied. But it took quantum physicist Randy Ingermanson to make it simple (go figure). Randy told his mentoring group, "Imagine a camera recording the scene. Where's the camera?" Of course, that's an oversimplification, but it helped me begin to understand.

The three major types of POV are omniscient, first person, and third person. Omniscient--where the narrator is able to see things from everyone's perspective--is less popular than it was years ago, probably because it's more distant and less likely to make the reader identify with characters. First person--told through a single narrator, from his viewpoint and with his thoughts and reactions--is good when you can pull it off. Robert B. Parker does it beautifully with his Spenser novels. I tried it once, but gave up after one chapter. It's tough. (And that's why agents and editors tell neophyte writers not to try). That leaves third person--told from the perspective of one person, revealing what they see and think. Close third person just means getting further inside their skin and giving the reader a more intimate view. Most writers of fiction choose this approach, and with good reason.

The non-writers reading this are already yawning. The writers are asking, "So? I know that...or think I do. What's your point?" Glad you asked. I've been noticing how many of the novels I've recently read have sections where the POV slides from the perspective of one character to another in the middle of a scene. Established writers can get away with it, but it sort of disappoints me. Even John Grisham, in his latest novel, has a bit of head-hopping early in the book.

Consider this scene. The protagonist is in trouble and being questioned by police. As we have been since the beginning of the novel, we're in the head of the protagonist: "(His) flash of anger was gone, replaced by the crush of confusion and fear." Great word choices, paints a good picture, definitely in the protagonist's POV. But, same scene, about a dozen lines of dialogue later, suddenly the detective "didn't like the...answer, but decided to let it slide. He knew that..." See, this either has to be omniscient POV or he's head-hopping. I took it for the latter. In either case, it seems that it would be a lot cleaner to keep the POV consistent throughout the scene. The transition is a bit jarring to me.

So, back to work, always conscious of my POV as I write. I think keeping it consistent makes for better reading and more identification by the reader with the character. But, that's my opinion. What's yours?

5 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

In my own writing, I try to stick with one point of view, mostly because I know someone’s eventually going to call me out on the mat for it if I don’t, rather than because I am convinced that is the best practice. I have decided not to criticize out authors for switching points of view because I would have to throw out too many good books if I did.

If we look at television, we may see twenty point of view shifts in a thirty second commercial. If the camera angle doesn’t change at least every twenty seconds people will get bored. Books are different than television and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, but I can’t help but think that we are limiting ourselves if we don’t allow ourselves to consider changing point of view characters and view angles within our scenes.

Nicole said...

Unless a writer exhibits the lack of understanding of POV, and it's easy to tell, I have no problem with what they now call head-hopping or occasional omniscience. Writing fiction is supposed to provide style not just formula, and, frankly, the rules work for establishing knowledge necessary to write story, but they quickly become formulaic and quite boring when observed strictly and read in book after book after book.

BJ Hoff said...

I'm convinced the rules exist for a reason--and often the reason is to make reading a story as smooth a process as possible for the reader. Not to cater to a writer's need to diversify or experiment with style, but to aid the *reader.* Anything that yanks the reader away from the story or causes the slightest confusion needs to be changed, whether it's an unnecessary POV shift, author intrusion, lack of flow or rhythm--whatever.

I couldn't begin to count the books I've put down because of the dizzying head-hopping or obvious ploys of the writer to call attention to his/her "style." Readers don't want style shows. They want story. Make them work too much and they'll stop working. Just because some of our bestselling authors "get away with it" doesn't make it a good idea.

For the reader's sake--one head a scene. And make sure the scenes are easily identified by hiatus marks on space breaks.

Again--for the reader's sake.

BJ Hoff said...

Oops. Should have been "or space breaks." Fingers work faster than brain.

Timothy Fish said...

In my own writing, I try to stick with one point of view, mostly because I know someone’s eventually going to call me out on the mat for it if I don’t, rather than because I am convinced that is the best practice. I have decided not to criticize out authors for switching points of view because I would have to throw out too many good books if I did.

If we look at television, we may see twenty point of view shifts in a thirty second commercial. If the camera angle doesn’t change at least every twenty seconds people will get bored. Books are different than television and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, but I can’t help but think that we are limiting ourselves if we don’t allow ourselves to consider changing point of view characters and view angles within our scenes.